Moor to Sea

Third leg of our west country odyssey spent in the highly entertaining company of our old friend Michael, staying over at his home at Landkey near Barnstaple.

Michael’s low beamed cob walled cottage faces directly onto the road at the front but out back a long narrow garden stretches gently down to a footbridge that crosses the leat which once powered the village’s old sawmill three doors down. This leads to an attractive stream, wavering with weed and water crows foot, forming a boundary with pastures the other side frequented by sheep and rabbits.

Luckily the bunnies aren’t inclined to cross the watery barrier so the small patches of produce Michael grows on what is effectively an island are not unduly threatened. This quiet secluded spot also has apple trees set in a mini-meadow and is the perfect spot to relax with a Pimm’s on a sunny afternoon!

We took a stroll around the lovely Millenium Green, in the creation of which Michael played a key role and is chairman of the charitable trust set up to plant and maintain its local distinctiveness. Mazzards are cherries peculiar to north Devon, first recorded in the 16th Century and a commercial crop in these parts until WW2. The flowering season draws sightseers to admire the mass of stunning blossom.  The green (orchard) has become a source of great pride to the villagers.

A return trip to RHS Rosemoor in the Torridge valley is always a pleasure. Love the wonderfully varied well curated horticultural environments. Each leads artfully one to another, and are full of interest, whatever the season. Am especially drawn to the rise of meadow field, damp stream side, generous ponds, orchards of regional apple varieties and classic cottage garden…No doubt subconsciously seeking further inspiration and making comparisons to home.

Visiting over the platinum jubilee holiday so amused to encounter this neat and witty leafy tribute to HM The Queen from the gardening crew…

Next day Michael gave us a whistle stop tour of Lynton and Lynmouth in the car, so we could get our bearings. Climbing out of the super steep valley of the Lyn River on the A39 we came up to the hamlet of Countisbury on Exmoor.

Parked at the Blue Ball Inn, a Grade II listed building dating from the 17th century, and clearly popular with visitors down the years as this wonderful photo from late Victorian times shows. We returned for an outside lunch here after a walk round Countisbury Head, which is in the care of the National Trust.

At nearly 1,000 feet this is the highest point on the whole south-west Coastal path, and not to be traversed if you’ve no head for heights. We were blessed with good weather to enjoy fabulous vistas up along the Somerset coast eastward (above) or looking back along the Devon coast westward (below) while across the Bristol Channel the extensive expanse of South Wales clearly presented itself, from Glamorgan to Pembrokeshire. The imposing mass of Exmoor too looked stunning seen from the television mast on the high point that commands a 360 degree sweep over valleys hills and sea.

Countisbury’s name is deprived from the old English Cune + Burgh meaning camp on the headland and it was here that the Saxons defeated a Danish invading force in AD878. The little parish church of St John the Evangelist, tucked into the hillside with its graveyard just above the pub car park, was a modest but charming old place and we particularly liked this sign by the alms box.

Linhay, Tallet and Barn

Tom and I have been friends since our secondary school days in Devon in the 1960’s. Have known his wonderful wife Janet since they were married and in recent years they’ve become firm friends with Kim too, cemented by their mutual understanding and shared vocation as hill farmers. A trip back to the western flanks of Dartmoor is not complete if we don’t meet up. Nothing quite matches a traditional farmhouse lunch where the lamb is home produced and beats anything you’d ever sample at the finest restaurant for flavour and texture.

Kim’s stone litho print of a pair of Blue faced Leicester tups has a special place on the farmhouse kitchen wall, as our friends keep rams of this breed themselves.

Before Tom could get back to join us for that exquisite lunch Janet had invited us to join here in the all terrain vehicle on a jaunt down the lanes to their riverside pastures for an inspection of their herd of South Devon cows with calves at foot. The sire, a pedigree Beef Shorthorn bull – informally dubbed Anthony – was beached recumbent on the sward. Janet got out to give him a firm but gentle poke so he’d heave himself up and walk on a few yards before resuming his rest. That way she’d know he was in good working order with no mobility problems.

After a great catch up conversation over lunch we stepped out again, pausing to admire the terrace of house martin dwellings under the eaves before a trip down to the track to the original farmstead over the brow. The new farmhouse where our friends live is a Duke of Bedford model farm dating from the 1850’s. Tom’s forebears were the Duke’s tenants, who’d come up from Cornwall to run this then state of the art agricultural holding. The new structures superceded the old longhouse style dwelling, partly embedded into the field beyond, and connected at right angles to its barn.

Following the passing of Tom’s parents, who had retired here when management passed down the line, the old farmhouse has been undergoing a gradual programme of repair and refurbishment to bring it up to modern standards. The barn, which qualified for heritage grant aid, has been beautifully restored to peak condition. Renewed lime mortar re-pointing and electrical wiring has allowed installation of interior strip lighting to greatly improve working conditions for lambing and other routine tasks.

The old barn has been expertly re-roofed in a traditional ‘graduated’ style where the slates vary in length and width, with the larger slates closer to the eaves and the smaller ones closer to the top of the roof. This style was developed in the days when local quarries produced slate on an ‘as available’ basis, rather than in specific sizes, which required the roofer to sort the slates by hand when they arrived on the job site. By laying the longest and widest slates at the eaves, where they carry the most water, and ‘graduating’ to several other lengths closer to the top, water is more effectively diverted away from the building. A properly constructed graduated slate roof like this one shows no obvious disconnect between the different sizes of slates used as the eye moves up the roof.

The winter storms had ripped the rusted corrugated roof from its moorings on a shed set into the lower side of the yard across from house and barn. Looking more closely at this much altered rectangular building my attention was drawn to some curious features. Small square windows and, more strikingly, regularly spaced stone pillars set within the oldest looking wall. Presumably the pillars preceded the wall, indicating an open structure and a load bearing capacity. So why this feature, and what was the original function? Did some research in my friend Michael Gee’s library at our next port of call in north Devon and was able to get back to my friends with what I’d discovered.

Their humble building must originally have been a linhay and tallet. These were once common in Devon and Somerset but today you’d be hard put to find one in anything like its original condition. (As with many redundant old farm buildings they have been converted into attractive holiday accommodation). A linhay is a two storey open fronted building that housed cattle through the winter months with a tallet, or hayloft, above. First recorded in the 17th Century they went on being built well into the 19th so they clearly served a very practical purpose. Today large prefabricated metal and wood farm sheds sheltering bigger numbers of livestock have dispensed with such structures. The true original Linhay had circular wood or stone piers (either granite or mortared stone) at the front with no internal divisions within; examples varying from one to eighteen bays in length. (Each bay being approx. 8 – 10 feet square. The tallet, normally constructed of wood and 6-8 feet above ground level, with the eaves of the double pitched roof some 4-6 feet above that). Hay could be easily loaded from a cart drawn up alongside and conveyed to the animals housed beneath through the winter. An added advantage was that hay provided extra insulation for the stock below. In some farms the linhay was adapted to garage carts when not used for cattle.

Here’s an example on a farm at Holwell, mid Devon, which has had wall infill for the linhay part and whose pillars stretch right to the top of the tallet section.

Barbican

The outer defence of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge. Usually barbicans were situated outside the main line of defence and connected with the city walls with a walled road called a ‘neck’.

A day trip to Plymouth, car free, thanks to the Looe to Liskeard rail connection. I remember the odd brief visit to the Barbican, many years apart when it was a more workaday waterfront environment rather than the leisure and cultural destination it has now become. That spirit was captured in the exuberant life affirming paintings of local landlady and self taught artist Beryl Cook (1926-2008). Victoria Wood memorably described her hugely popular and instantly recognisable work as ‘Rubens with jokes’.

This is the historic heart of the settlement that grew to be known as Plymouth and the C14th castle on the hill the Barbican led to only exists as a fragment today. The modern day harbour walls are crammed with commemorative plaques, most famously the one recording the sailing of the Mayflower for America in 1620. Over the road that leads to the hoe and its outstanding views, the great grey cliff like bastions of the Royal Citadel, built in the wake of the civil war and still a military base, marks one boundary of this eclectic maze of narrow cobbled streets where post war social housing rubs shoulders with expensive penthouses. Today the harbour is chock full of yachts moored at pontoons while the old Victorian fish quay has become home to a variety of eateries and artisan outlets. The new quay, relocated across Sutton harbour, thrives as a major landing and market for the commercial fishing community and the neighbouring national aquarium draws the crowds .

I’d recalled from my youth the astonishing mural produced by that other famous Barbican artist and resident, Robert Lenkiewicz (1941-2002). Eventually rediscovered his ‘Everyone is Welcome’ old studio and, on its end wall, the now ghosted and crumbling 300 square foot mural. Created with such verve 50 years ago, and fusing art and life in using local people as his models, it celebrates the metaphysics of the English Renaissance and the Barbican’s role as a dynamic mercantile powerhouse at that time c. 1580-1620. Here’s an online re-coloured version. More at: https://www.robertlenkiewicz.org/

The Barbican’s Southside Street leads one way traffic into what is billed as the largest concentration of cobblestoned streets to be found anywhere in the country. Sitting out on the pavement of the busy narrow thoroughfare over a coffee we watched as a lorry driver halted and man managed all traffic for nearly ten minutes so he could, deftly as any athlete, unload and deliver two pallets worth of goods to one of the many art and craft galleries here

There are some 200 listed buildings in the Barbican, many of them only existing today thanks to bodies like the Plymouth Barbican Trust (PBT) formed in 1957. No 32 New Street has been a museum since being saved from demolition by a big public campaign in the 1930’s and has recently been extensively renovated and given new visitor facilities by the city council. In descending its three wooden floors we discovered a history reflecting that of the neighbourhood at large. Built by a local merchant adventurer in the 1580’s (when the street actually was new) the house was subdivided in the 18th with a wigmaker occupying the middle floor. As the middle classes left to the suburbs in the 19th century the lower floor had a through passage added and rooms were given over to multi-occupation. A female sex worker’s story is told here. The Elizabethan house, like others in New Street, recycles a ships mast as newel post, around which the steep stairs wind, extending through to the loft.

The biggest surprise was an attraction I never knew existed until this day. The Elizabethan Garden is actually a recreation of garden designs from the C17th and is a PBT initiative dating from 1970, set behind the New Street properties where once cottages had stood, cleared as slums in the last century, and can only be accessed by a narrow side passage & steps. We were entranced by the garden’s specimen black mulberry tree, the boxwood knot garden, gravelled paths and cool fountain. An inscribed slab lists all those who sailed in the Mayflower and a stone replica of the ship is set in an arch.

The contrast of formalised greenery with walls of grey marble stones was striking. A welcome peaceful haven stepped back from the heart of the old town, overlooking the long narrow gardens of New Street’s cafe bars with their shaded outdoor seating. (proved ideal for a laid back lunch, al fresco).

Despite the old city centre being largely destroyed in WW2 and the naval dockyards badly damaged the Barbican itself survived relatively unscathed and now seems to embrace yet another social and cultural role for the 21st century.  

Rail and Trail

East Looe Quayside

Enjoyed a recent family holiday back in the home country. There were outings we took together, like a return visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan and to the picture book perfect village of Polperro and ones I took on my own to indulge twin loves exploring the countryside on foot and by rail. This holiday offered the opportunity to do both, on the same day!

An affordable summer trip to the seaside for working class families, when I was a boy growing up in west Devon, was a coach trip over the border to Looe. The narrow winding streets of the old fishing port were thronged with visitors then, as indeed it is now. I recall a crowded beach with legions of deck chairs with boat trips fishing for shark especially popular with the menfolk vying to land the biggest catch. Today we saw no deck chairs anywhere on the beach and the resort prides itself on its shark conservation programme.

Our rented cottage in West Looe gave a fantastic view over the confluence of the east and west rivers in their respective sunken river valleys, or ‘rias’. The conjoined Looe river is relatively shallow and fast flowing, sparkling clear, green with waving weed, hundreds of small boats moored on it and bustling extended harboursides to east and west. Sitting out on our veranda, we could see the two carriage trains arrive and depart along the riverbank embankment, appearing from this distance like a model train set. Dating from 1860, the former mineral line was built to replace a canal carrying quarried granite and other produce for export with fish, lime and other imports coming inland. The line was extended in 1901 via a steeply inclined horseshoe loop which finally connected it to the main line at Liskeard. Looe then became the main seaside resort for nearby Plymouth. Housing to accommodate a rapidly expanded population pushed the ancient town’s boundaries up the steep hillsides, linked by flights of steep steps and lanes. It was in one of those former artisan dwellings we were staying.

Liskeard Station Terminus of the Looe Valley Line: Part of the Museum

The sweeping Beeching cuts of the 1960’s proposed closure of the Looe branch. Only the last minute intervention of Transport Minister Barbara Castle overrode that terrible decision and the line is once again thriving, with passenger numbers doubling in the 21st century. The three stations the track passes through are all request stops. One has what is possibly the most charming station name in the country: ‘St Keyne Wishing Well’. Along with Causland and Sandplace halts it is well maintained by the community rail partnership that manages the line today.

The line is better loved and much improved since the early 1980’s when it was in a sorry state due to under funding and general neglect. I was last here in 1982 undertaking my first TV film role. A 30’ contemporary paranormal drama entitled ‘The Beast’, one of six ‘West Country Tales’ produced by BBC South West, directed by John King (Father of naturalist & broadcaster Simon King). The narrator, also a character in the story, is seen travelling the line in the opening sequence. I wince today when revisiting my own performance as a hapless husband and householder who becomes the beast’s victim. There is a (poor quality) copy on You Tube.

The temperate rainforest of the East Looe River is a delight to travel through by train and the conductor was busy taking fares and dealing with passenger enquiries while also being responsible for working the points at Combe Junction while the driver swops ends. The train then reverses and revs its way out of the valley bottom, up onto the steepest of engine straining inclines, hedge greenery swirling in its wake, to slide under the high arches of the main line viaduct and through concrete tunnels below the A38 to emerge into the restored and well maintained terminus at Liskeard. There, an ace museum in the original waiting room and booking hall tells the line’s fascinating history. More at: https://dcrp.org.uk/category/looe-valley-line/

Jack the Giant, having nothing to do / Built a hedge from Lerryn to Looe’

Despite the temptation to start a walk at one of the rail halts I opted instead to take my country stroll on foot from the holiday home. Circumnavigating the huge visitor car park next where the town’s old boat building yard stood by the confluence of the rivers, to Kilminorth Woods. Everything changed as I was immersed in the cool quiet of its shady green groves stretching from estuary to hilltop. Below me, where oak boughs daily touch high tides, little egrets were quartering the esturial mudflats joined by a scattering of crows. Kilminorth is now an official nature reserve and the biggest area of semi-natural deciduous woodland in Cornwall. Commercially worked for at least four hundred years this varied woodland was a rich source of sustainable timber for a whole range of construction, agricultural and boat building uses.

At some point in the 6th Century local chieftains had built a nine mile tribal boundary wall and ditch in the west Looe valley and large sections of this remarkable structure remain today in the wood that it probably preceded. Today the roots of invasive trees have altered the nature and appearance of this of the stone flanked earth bank but it remains an impressive landscape feature.  

I emerged from the woodland to continue uphill along a narrow sunken lane dense with ferns, mosses and other damp loving plants typical of this precious topography; an increasingly fragile one as our climate changes. 

Once the land had slowly levelled off, I found myself back under the sun on rough farm tracks skirting a quarry and ploughed fields, yielding fine views over blue seas and distant shorelines. Despite the promise held out by initial signage the public footpath disappeared at some point and I had to zigzag my way by field boundaries looking for signs of a legitimate way forward. Thought I’d discovered it when what from a distance looked like a high style turned out to be a shooting seat for wildfowlers.

Fortunately, just a few yards further along, I found sufficient breach in the earth bank to regain access to the woods. Threading through the undergrowth, putting up speckled wood butterflies and startled blackbirds, I eventually regained the wide tracks that lead me, weary but happy, back to base.

A Hut A Byens

Tell me a thing or two about bones / how they rise from the earth like stalks of wheat / vertebrae on vertebrae / defying gravity for a while, odds stacked / and when the breath is passed / only bones remain. (From One Day a Year by Juana Adcock)

Last year Kim was commissioned to do the illustrations for a poetry booklet which involved her heading over to the other end of the county to do some on site research. I happily went along as her bag carrier, and history being my bag I was more than happy to carry it!

Our destination was Bamburgh. The one time capital of Bernicia, as the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was known when allied with Deria (modern day County Durham). The sea roads were the motorways of the day and the fortress cum palace atop the mass of Whin sill rock, then as now, dominates this awesomely beautiful stretch of coastline.

Bamburgh – or Bebbanburg as it was then known – was the centre of Christianity in the north of England and home of the early Celtic saints who established and rooted the faith here and at nearby Lindisfarne, or Holy Island. It remains a major place of pilgrimage, secular & religious, to this very day. St Aidan, called from Iona by King Oswald in AD 635, founded the first church that bears his name. The village’s current parish church is Grade 1 listed and it was this, in part, we were coming to discover more about.

Our destination was also the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s series of historical novels set in 9th Century set here and in the other Saxon kingdoms of Wessex & Mercia, The Warrior Chronicles, brilliantly adapted for television as The Last Kingdom. We’re both huge fans so having even this most transcendental connection with saga’s protagonist Uhtred, son of Uhtred, rightful lord of Bebbanburg made us very happy. In our rugged hero’s own words, ‘Destiny is all’!

In the early 19th century a violent storm revealed part of the extensive dune system south of the castle to be a long forgotten graveyard. Little was made of the discovery in the ‘bowl hole’, as the spot is known locally, and the site was lost again to common memory until recently when from 1997 – 2007 a detailed comprehensive scientific study was made of the remains of the 110 individuals whose bodily remains were re-discovered there. Thanks to the wonders of radiocarbon dating we know them to be members of the Saxon royal household, who had lived during the 7th and 8th centuries. Burial in the foetal position, pre AD 900, with faces looking west indicates a Christian burial site, though whether they were all Christian or not it’s impossible to say. Approximately half were born and brought up away from this area. Immigrants who had come to serve the court in one capacity or the other from as far away as Mediterranean Europe and Scandinavia – or closer to home – from Scotland, Cumbria and Ireland.

Apart from dental decay caused by richer sweeter foods these folk enjoyed relative good health, indicating high status. (Their diet was more animal based than marine, which seems curious for a coastal community). It’s the unique identifiers that bring individuals into sharper focus though. The 20 year old professional warrior who had suffered severe axe wounds, or the Irish seamstress with the nick between her incisor teeth caused by habitual biting of thread; the middle aged monk from the Hebrides who could have accompanied Aidan, the nine year old girl and her Mediterranean born mother who brought her here, and so on.

Musing on all this and more after lunch in one of the village’s cafes we wondered the near deserted sea shore and dunes, never far from the lengthening shadow of that ever present fortress on the rock, restored and extended by the Victorian arms magnate Lord Armstrong and still a family home. I lingered in Kim’s wake, with bag for samples and shoot, while she focused her camera lens on marram grass in the sand dunes, or gathered shells and seaweed under the wash of the retreating tide. The great expanse of bright winter sky arching over the timeless sea road, empty now of any visible traffic.

In 2016 the bodies of the dead, laid in zinc ossuary boxes imported from the continent, were escorted on horse drawn hearses before large crowds of onlookers to be solemnly re-interred in the crypt of St Aidan’s after a special service. Today an audio-visual display illuminates the story of the Bamburgh Bones on the crypt’s medieval stone walls, while the caskets – like safe deposit boxes with crosses – lie behind a frieze of Celtic style metalwork securing their new found place of eternal rest. We drove home enlightened by the poignancy of the migration story, grateful to have been immersed in the spirit of place. Darkness made visible, thanks to science and the power of human imagination.

But now something of seashell, something of seafoam,/is the arrangement of your puzzle in a vault / beside the sea, where flickers a candleflame / for what they didn’t find. There’s a strongbox for the rest. (From Find by Jacob Polley)

The Bamburgh Bones project is an ongoing cultural enterprise combining the skills and resources of community, academic and tourist bodies, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Find out more at: https://bamburghbones.org/

Footnote. Three days after our visit Storm Arwen struck and we spent the next 10 days living a modern day version of ‘the dark ages’ without electric power. Those experiences are recorded elsewhere on these pages. Kim, keen to make the best of winter daylight hours, set up her easel and drawing equipment by the south facing living room window and started the drawing process for what would become ‘A Hut A Byens’.

Sitting still for hours without heating added an extra challenge. (It certainly kindled an empathy with all those hard working monks illuminating the gospels back in the day at Lindisfarne). When power was restored the pace of work picked up and she met her deadline in mid January.

Poems commissioned and arranged by Dr John Challis (Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University) and Dr Tony williams (Northumbria University) in partnership with Jessica Turner and Northumberland Coast, AONB.

Skyeldeman, wor nyems, fetched far fr’ hyem / Hanted amang ee, a hut a byens / Happed up wi’ sand ahint the Fairen. / Hunkered i’ the Boolie Hyel / Waitin’ on a hooley /T’howk ‘em oot, th’ baad unkent. (From A Hut A Byens by Katrina Porteous) Translated from the Northumberland coastal dialect, with its roots in the Anglo-Saxon as: Stranger, our names, fetched far from home / Hung around among you, a heap of bones / Covered up with sand in the lee of the Inner Farne. / Crouched in the Bowl Hole / Waiting for a storm / To unearth them, the remains unknown.

Garden Notes

It’s that time of the year when all gardeners are up and at it on their patch of paradise. Kim’s the plantswoman who created our garden from scratch here at the corner house some 18 years ago and I’ve been her willing deputy since moving in six years ago. Descended from a long line of gardeners, with the practised artist’s eye for colour, form and texture Kim has created something special at the edge of the known gardening world. Growing up in an interwar council house in west Devon in the 1960’s my family enjoyed the benefits of having front and back gardens plus a generous size allotment a stone’s throw away. That’s where I got my interest and grounding in the basic craft.

Our garden’s generous three quarters of an acre spread has given me the responsibility and challenge to tackle all the things my guiding light doesn’t like doing. i.e. lawn mowing, spreading and raking gravel on the yard and along paths, moving big heavy pots and stones, sawing and shredding, construction etc. We share the tedious but necessary regular tasks between us, like watering pots and hand weeding. Her centre of industry currently is the vegetable garden raised beds with their protective pop-a-domes and the small but essential greenhouse where many small miracles are fashioned to ensure production. My mainly self taught husbandry centres on meadow, orchard and pond.

This year’s apple blossom has been exceptionally good. Frosts have not been a problem so far (fingers crossed) so setting for fruit has been good. Our south facing aspect greatly benefits the fruit trees espaliered on that side of the house – the stone gives shelter and retrains heat, and they thrive. The James Grieve for instance, the first variety we planted six years ago, has spread luxuriantly. The pear and apple trees re-planted in wooden pots two years ago – well fed, in good compost and mulched with bark – also thrive on that walled garden south side.

Of the stand alone trees in our other orchard the three year old Katy, (grown for juicing) is currently a riot of creamy white flowers. Next to it is a Christmas Pippin, my particular dessert favourite in being small crisp and flavourful. Its brave show of blossom too promises a bumper final crop this season. The biggest tree is an Arthur Turner and a fine cooker displaying the blousiest of blossoms.

Spring housekeeping done on my beloved pond. Removed a tangle of excess oxygenating weeds to avoid choking more delicate plants like water hawthorn and a small lily recently bought. Cleared and deepened a channel between the stony beach and the deepest section by taking out some pebbles and baskets of marginal plants that had succumbed to weeds or died off. I was delighted to spy from the overlooking bathroom window a male blackbird taking his morning bath and drink in this new waterway. One of the visiting grandchildren spied a pair of young frogs under a capstone by the waters edge and I saw them myself today. Frog spawn is usually spotted in the water troughs or streamlets in nearby fields but never in our pond. This being a palmate newt dominated spot adult common frogs are only seen in spring and summer. If they ever laid eggs in the water here they would be eaten by adult newts. Frogs, like the resident toads, are very useful in keeping a check on slugs, snails and other garden pests. A stack of logs beyond the stony beach provides shelter for overwintering newts, frogs and toads as well as attracting the insect life that gradually breaks them down.

The meadow, of all my ongoing garden projects, is the one most in flux. The garden lawns link and frame all main areas – beds, borders, woodland and shrubs –  but a large roughly triangular section is always left unmown. I started the labour intensive process of turning its top corner and edges into a flower meadow. Four years in and already we see an increase of emerging plantain (deliberately seeded) as well as meadow cranesbill and cow parsley (self seeded). Most of all though the yellow rattle liberally sown every year is spreading into the heart of the growing sward, as intended. This annual is key in meadow creation, being a semi-parasitic that lives on the roots of dominant grasses, in this case rye and couch, weakening them to allow more delicate meadow flowers to take purchase and establish. There have been successive waves of predominant flowers dominating from the clay seed mix I used – first poppies, then marigolds – so we await to see what this season throws up as herbal front runner. A couple of weeks ago I broadcast lesser knapweed in spots where random daffodils had been growing and then added the displaced bulbs to the massed line up on the roadside out front. The linear spread of established daffodils there put on a cheering show for the passing world, from March into April and even now, into May.

In Other News…Swallows returned earlier than usual, on 28th April to be exact. Caught them acrobatically copulating on the wire over the yard yesterday and see that nest building is in progress under the new deck roof. They seem to have started one then abandoned it in favour of another, dark with still damp mud. Elsewhere in the garden I think we have a pair of greenfinches nesting for the first time.

Last autumn the storm battered old wood gazebo collapsed and was replaced by a metal arch that has slowly rusted once exposed to the elements. Have now made it a pair by installing another at the other, lower, entrance to the vegetable garden. I’ve re-positioned a climbing Tayberry on one side and a thornless blackberry on the other. (Both of them failed to grow happily elsewhere). Here’s hoping they thrive as much as the New Dawn climbing rose and Blue Angel clematis do on the other arch.

The canny texel tups over the hedge continue to revel in the lawn clippings I serve up for them by way of a ready meal. In the next field their offspring lambs in happy gangs are playfully running around with all the joys of spring as they do every year. A dip in the ground by our stone wall their favourite playground.

Initial dismay at the sight of more molehills in our field transfigured in seeing the positive side.  A happy hour spent bagging up soil of such fine tilth to use filling pots for Kim’s ever growing range of plants and shrubs.

Walk on the Greenside

Delighted to receive an invitation to a talk and walk at Greenside Farm last Saturday morning. Owners Charles Bennett and his wife Charlotte are seeking to restore harmony with nature by protecting valuable habitats and creating new ones while at the same time making ends meet financially in producing the food our nation needs.

Greenside – AKA Middleton Farm North – is just two years into a transformation that will see it become a herbal grass rich nature friendly farming operation. Up until 2020, when its last harvest was gathered in, 70% of this 400 acre farm in the Wansbeck valley was given over to arable production. Now they’re experimenting with bird friendly fields, digging a string of new ponds, replanting hedgerows and have created 40 acres of new woodlands.

Significantly the Bennetts’ no longer keep any farm animals of their own but instead let out all their pastureland to neighbours, concentrating time and resources instead on developing infrastructure and securing funding streams, private and governmental, to match their labour and investment. Charlie freely admits they could not have done so much so quickly without the voluntary input of the Alnwick Wildlife Group whose hours of free manpower has been crucial in in preparation and planting.

Charlie Bennett is a charismatic, articulate and humorous figure in his early 50’s whose family has been involved in farming since the 16th century. He’s also a regular columnist on rural affairs for The Northumbrian Magazine. The Bennetts’ were initially won over to join this new wave of regenerative farmers by the example of leading ‘re-balancer’ Isabella Tree and her family whose pioneering work on their 3,500 acre Knepp estate in Sussex is chronicled in her best selling book Wilding.

Research took Charlie to the Lit & Phil in Newcastle where he was excited to discover a detailed 1805 map of the farm (then known as Hartburn Grange) when it was owned by trustees of the Greenwich Hospital in London and whose profits generated income for naval pensioners. This in turn opened his eyes to the extraordinary achievements of one of Northumberland’s most famous sons, the wood engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) whose work is probably far more familiar to people than the life of the man who created so many miniature masterpieces over 200 years ago. Charlie is using a spread sheet as well as good old fashioned field observation to record the presence of flora and fauna known to Bewick in his day and track the hoped for re-emergence, alongside the presence of new species introduced since late Georgian times.

The kitchen in the Bewick birthplace farmstead at Cherryburn

I volunteer at Cherryburn, the Tyne valley farm that was Bewick’s birthplace, now a museum run by the National Trust. The Bewick Society, who organised today’s visit, was formed in 1989 to promote interest in the life and work of the great man and the world in which he practised his craft. Find out more about the society and its activities here: http://www.bewicksociety.org

Charlie and his two Labradors lead the way along the old railway embankment

Following an informal introductory talk and questions in the farm’s open sided modern barn over tea and biscuits we set off for our amble round the farmlands. The happy buzz of conversation between us as individuals ranged widely as we sauntered or paused to take it all in. We crossed former traditionally ploughed ‘rigg and furrow’ (ridge & furrow) fields with skylarks singing high above. Learn that the Bennett’s grass lets run longer than normal but are subject to lower stocking densities, attempting to strike the right conservation/grazing balance needed for sustainability and renewal, eliminating the inputs of synthetic fertilisers.

Hawthorn hedges have been planted, old ones enriched, and the stone flanked earth banks (Kests) they grow on gradually being restored. Other hedges, where practicable, are being allowed to spread much wider and higher than conventional yearly cut hedges. They’re managed on a three year rotation, allowing them to be both effective as stock control and fulfil their maximum conservation potential. New fencing also preserves the odd yellow flowered whin (gorse) groves between pastures, a familiar sight in this part of the world.

Bewick’s wood engraving of a yellowhammer from The Book of British Birds

Experimental seeding of one field to encourage foraging by wild birds has had mixed results. The variety of cover sown was more attractive to pigeons and rats than visiting birds. Conversely another seeding trial has attracted record breaking numbers of yellowhammers, a threatened bird species, once common on arable land.

Whin Grove & Dead Ash

One field we strolled through was bordered by a line of dead and dying Ash trees, in various stages of decay, due to die back. Charlie is leaving them standing on the basis they’ve a chance to produce disease resistant seeds and their passing still enriches the natural food chain. Other large grass leys have mini-copses of trees planted protected by stockproof rectangles of wood planks. Once established these ‘arboreal fountains’ should provide 360 degree cover and shelter for stock, whatever the season.

We navigated a burn with its steep wooded banks, yellow bright with celandine and cowslip. A sheltered damp meadow here produces a wealth of flowers in summer. Wherever possible mesh tree guards used instead of the old style non-biodegradable plastic ones, an exercise supported by the Woodland Trust.

We joined up and followed the single trackbed of the disused Wansbeck branch line, past a single platform, all that remains of Middleton North station, now thick with invasive trees. In amongst the brambles a mass of white starred stitchwort and yet-to-flower borage is lining the permanent way.

Further on an owl nesting box sits snugly under the arch of a stone bridge, that would have once facilitated the movement of stock between fields. We eventually return to cross it, enjoying views over the Wansbeck valley beyond.

Explored a new bird hide, next an ivy covered ruin of a brick built wayside hut, overlooking newly dug pond in a medieval quarry known to have provided the stone to build nearby villages. School parties sometimes visit the farm and this is one of the places they particularly like.

Passed a small orchard that produces an apple variety that has no registered provenance, which is fascinating to an apple grower like me. Excellent dessert quality fruit Charlie assures us, but not good keepers.

The River Wansbeck is a narrow winding lowland stream (its course marked by classic oxbow lakes) but environmentally important for having native white clawed crayfish living in its waters. (The invasive red clawed species threatens their existence in the UK, and the government have given the native breed protected status with all that implies regarding everyday aspects of management). Otters, another once endangered species, have returned in recent times and seen off the remaining alien mink along the valley. Two success stories. Yet nature is unsentimentally interactive and Charlie has witnessed otters enjoying a gourmet snack of white crayfish skillfully hunted then chewed at leisure on the riverbank!

Skirt the new woodlands, edged with a fine line of cherries in glorious blossom, before crossing a verdant lane to learn more about the series of ponds scrapped out of blue clay bordering the farm’s biggest field, a south sloping former moor or ‘waste’ that was ‘improved’ in the 18th century. Those old field drains have now being blocked where found, helping re-wet the lower ground and reducing flooding danger on the adjacent road. Amazingly, this project was made possible by Coca-Cola Corporation who operate a bottling plant for Abbey Well spring water at nearby Morpeth. Corporate responsibility policy obliges them to help restore or otherwise enhance water resources in the area they extract from.

Thomas Bewick ‘Tale-piece’ to illustrate a page in his Book of British Birds. (Actual size approx 6 times smaller)

Back at the barn some folk needed to leave for other commitments. We stayed on, appetites sharpened by the walk and good company, to enjoy our picnic lunch enjoying further lively conversation, sparked by reactions to what we’d witnessed this morning. It’s a challenging balancing act that Charlie and his family have embarked upon. One that they’ve embraced with energy and initiative and one in which we all – as producers, consumers and concerned citizens – have positive parts to play. Can’t wait to return in future to see where they’ve got to….

More information at http://www.middleton-north.co.uk

Castle Lake & Tarn

Easter in the Lake District, and a happy few days staying at a favourite vegetarian B&B between Hawkshead and Tarn Hows. A short drive away is a place I’ve been meaning to visit for years, Wray Castle on Windermere. In the care of the National Trust since 1929 this high Victorian romance of a building was at the centre of a mock baronial estate enjoying extensive lakeside frontage with large boathouses, while inland a farm, church, vicarage were built. The farmland and ancient woodlands also included Blelham Tarn. We set out on foot to link all these places up over some 3.5 miles.

Wray Castle and its estate was built between 1840 and 1860 by a wealthy Liverpool surgeon James Dawson and his heiress wife Margaret as their Lake District retreat. The interior’s grand rooms are now bare but would have once been lavishly decorated and furnished. After the Dawsons had both died the castle was occupied by various owners. In the summer of 1882 the wealthy Potter family from Kensington booked it for the summer, their first visit to the Lake District. The Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley, the Vicar of Crosthwaite nr. Keswick who also held the living of St Margaret in the estate grounds, befriended the two children, Beatrix and Bertram. Rawnsley encouraged Beatrix to publish her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in 1902. A key influence on her, and the epitome of ‘muscular Christianity’ the energetic and charismatic Rawnsley was a leading Lakeland conservation campaigner who would go on to be one of the founder members of the National Trust in 1895. The money Beatrix Potter earned from stellar book sales during her lifetime enabled her to buy scores of farms and other property in the Lake district. Left on her death in 1943 to the National Trust, this extraordinary endowment became the core of the organisation’s extensive holdings in the region.

Setting out on the road that got us here we’re glad to leave it and take the dedicated walking/cycle track running parallel in the field. We pause to admire an old metal field, typical of a grand Victorian landed estate like Wray Castle.

We circumvent the tarn, only bordering its shores a little way, wending through open woods with some ancient oaks, past a slew of slates where a wall has been recently broached, before heading uphill on a well worn stony track. Not clear whether the winter’s storms had brought a tree down to smash the wall but, as elsewhere around the country, the land is littered with tree trunks and here, if not blocking paths or roads, are left to lie and decay for nature’s sake.

An iron age sword, a rare discovery in Cumbria, has been unearthed near here. The weapon had been deliberately broken in half, prompting speculation it was part of a burial rite or a ceremony by a chieftain to claim an area of land. Looking back on the mirrored waters we see a scientific measuring station floating on it, maintained by the Institute of Freshwater Ecology whose HQ lies on nearby Windermere at Far Sawrey. (It was previously housed in Wray Castle).

A traditional slate barn, dark and dominant, tops the hill we climb. By the hedge in a field we pass a new born lamb takes its first hesitant steps whilst the mother, trailing after birth, carries on grazing. We pass the curious ghostly remnant of a tree, fissured and blanched bark splayed like an animal hide.

We passed round a farm complex and cottages, walking downhill through pastures by a little stream and woods, where the National Trust’s estate husbandry was clear to see. Hedges thick set, high and well fenced, on a three year cutting regime (not annual) with a healthy mix of ash, hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn, holly etc. These hedges fulfill their primary function as stock boundaries while providing high conservation value as linear woodlands, a haven for a multitude of wildlife.  It also acts as a retentive barrier against flooding and preserves the stream’s banks.

Large slabs of slate used as gateposts or hedges are traditional sights in a classic Lake District landscape. Delighted then to pass through a slate and wood style more turnstyle in appearance than step over style, complete with slide door for dogs.

Elsewhere there are giveaway signs that the oldest field gateposts are the ones with holes for sliding wooden crossbars that, in pre-mechanised times, were the norm in these parts.

The last stage of out ramble took us down a stony lane through mixed woodlands and pastureland to the Windermere shore line below the castle where we merged with lots of folk out for the day enjoying the Easter sun and the green open spaces on the long lake shore. The core purpose of the National Trust exemplified in opening to one and all what was once only available to the fortunate wealthy few.

The estate built vicarage is now a private home and a very smart one at that. Unlike the Victorian church of St Margaret just up the lane. Still owned by the Church of England and not the Trust it is now redundant, closed to the public on safety grounds. It stands forlorn and without purpose, though the cawing rooks nesting in the silent tower where bells no longer toll, call it home. I’m sure the Reverend Rawnsley would be saddened by the demise of his old seat but at least the spirit of the man lives on in his outstanding work to better the lot of humanity and making access to the countryside possible for countless generations to come. A legacy this delightful route through parkland and pasture bears witness to.

Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (Pictured 1918) 1850 – 1920

Footnote: Back in the late 1980’s I played Canon Rawnsley in an interactive site specific educational project for junior schools around Townend Farmhouse, Troutbeck. The Young National Trust Theatre Company I was part of at the time devised and performed these projects nationally – blending drama, music, roleplay and performance – for the National Trust in its properties nationally, sponsored by major blue chip companies and the Esmee Fairbairn Trust. Playing Beatrix Potter in this particular project was Roberta Kerr, my old friend and colleague from Theatre-in-Education days.

The Country Comes to Town

I walked the length of the Elmes, and with great pleasure saw some gallant ladies and people come with their bottles, and basket, and chairs, and form,to sup under the trees, by the water-side, which was mighty pleasant. Saumel Pepys, 26 May 1667

Kim & I took the train to London a month ago, for a long delayed catch up with family. So wrapped up have I been since returning home, mainly due to getting the latest project together and out on the road, that I’ve only got round to recording these notes now.

London Wetlands Centre in Summer: Photo Credit Sam Stafford

I remember seeing a BBC Springwatch programme a few years ago, strands of which were set at the London Wetlands Centre, where foxes were filmed swimming across to raid the nests of wading birds on islands. What a fascinating place I thought, a preserve of nature rich countryside at the heart of the capital. Really must go there sometime. With a daughter and family living in Richmond and a brown & white heritage sign at the end of the street pointing towards the LWC…What were we waiting for? The suggestion to visit with the grandchildren (aged 6 and 4) was excitedly taken up by them and our adventure started when we boarded the little red bus to speed away eastwards down river to Barnes.

A medieval manor and estate occupied the Barnes peninsula, formed by a tight turn of the Thames, which belonged for centuries to St Paul’s Cathedral. Post reformation, Barn Elms was gifted to spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham by Elizabeth I for services rendered to her royal security. In the 17th & 18th centuries the peninsula drew increasing numbers of wealthy leisure seekers looking to escape the capital on boat outings. In the 1820’s one of my historical heroes William Cobbett farmed experimentally on the site and wrote much of Rural Rides, his celebrated polemical essays, there. The whole nature of the place changed when the Victorians expanded housing and drowned more land to provide the reserves of water that a rapidly expanding metropolis and its soaring population demanded.

Location of the original reservoirs at Barn Elms

The resulting rectangle of waterworks, subdivided in four, was designated a Site of Scientific or Special Interest (SSSI) due to its importance as a feeding ground, sustaining overwintering flocks of ducks and geese. The four interconnected reservoirs were eventually made redundant in the 1990’s when a new ringway main was built, bypassing them. In a bold and controversial move Sir Peter Scott, founder of Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, struck a multi-million pound deal with Thames Water and Berkeley Homes that saw some of the site become luxury housing and the rest  designated a national nature reserve. The resulting intensive rewilding process – part structural, part natural – has proved spectacular and has been the model for projects elsewhere in urban areas.

Birch & willow carr

The LWC’s 105 acres is still managed by the WWT, with a half a dozen public hides, interpretation, education and reception HUBS. It is home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, both residents and seasonal visitors. It was pretty nippy and overcast the day of our visit and their takeaway café dispensing hot drinks was particularly appreciated. The children loved it and their running around and exploration of the myriad of paths, copses, banks, bridges and hedges on site kept them warm enough. A highlight was the lunchtime feeding by one of the staff of the reserve’s resident pair of Asian otters in their large enclosure. Everyone suitably entranced by the lithe movements and playful antics of the pair when seen at close range.

We’d no binoculars unfortunately but still managed to see lots of birds. Many ducks and divers, geese and swans, cormorants, cranes and herons inhabiting shallows, shingle banks or the various kinds of artificial islands created in the former reservoir basins. Much of the concrete was broken up and used as hard core for car parks, paths and reefs. The exposed clay was then molded and planted to form thirty various habitats for animals and birds. Some sections, fitted with sluice gates, are seasonally flooded to simulate wild conditions for some bird species. More than 20 years after opening the remaining man made structures are softened almost beyond recognition with all manner of vegetation, while repurposed banks and bunds were starting to bloom as spring advanced.

Blackthorn blossom

Hawthorn, birch, alder and elm much in evidence in the marshy carr section, with fingers of shallow creeks meandering through. The reserve is accessed by flat gravelled paths cleverly make the best of the topography to give an enhanced feeling of space. I particularly liked the contrast of pretty blackthorn blossom and dried stands of reed beds. The reserve is particularly proud to be home to rare and endangered birds like bitterns and water rails – shy species more likely to be heard than seen – but for us the white heads of coots or the red caps of moorhens were the commonest sights in this part of the site.  

Blacktorn, reed and passing coot

The children loved the flurries of mandarin ducks on one of the ponds we encountered while the ring necked parakeets flitting through the trees were more fascinating to me with their flashes of colour and squaking cries.

Ring necked parakeets; image by Tom Tams for Wild Intrigue

The latter as an alien species are now a common sight in Greater London and beyond but not one have we come across in the Scottish Borderlands. (At least, not yet) The most acceptable theory is that these tenacious and highly adaptable marauders came through UK ports as mariners’ pets, which then escaped, bred and spread outwards across the interconnected green spaces of suburbia.

Breeding & feeding islets

We had our picnic lunches in the warmth and comfort of the reserve’s  lofty observation tower whose plate glass windows gave great views over bird world on the water. Its green high banked boundaries give way to blocks of flats, lines of houses, retail and office towers, aerials and chimneys and – somewhere the unseen Thames, fulfilling its curving course – all framing the sweeping vista. We slipped back into the hustle and bustle of the traffic clogged high street as the light faded. What a refreshing and insightful way to experience the joys of nature in the city. Tomorrow’s world today for even more people to discover if we have the will to make such places an integral part of our larger urban landscapes.

Of Mithras and Men

There is a host of exhibitions and events taking place in our region this year to mark the 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall was built – the fortified northern frontier of Rome’s mighty empire. Men of the Roman elite, especially military officers like the ones stationed here, were devotees of the eastern God Mithras, and there are remains of some 100 temples dedicated to this deity, mostly situated near major military sites. Mithraic temples, or Mithraeums, were buildings without windows and the secret rites and rituals inspired by legends of Mithras slaying a bull in a dark cave that were performed there are, by their very nature, largely unknown, leaving much to the imagination. 

Brocilitia, Carrawburgh: Image by Following Hadrian Photography

If travelling the C18th Military Road (B6318) that runs the course of much of Hadrian’s Wall take time out to park or get off the bus at Brocilitia and stroll down the shallow valley there. The unusually dry hot summer of 1949 exposed the outline of foundations below the former wall fort at Carrawburgh and further digging revealed it to be a mithraeum, operational from around 200-330 AD. Replica concrete altars now replace the originals, housed at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Long before Hadrian had his wall built Londinium had rapidly grown rapidly from its foundation to become the principal port and trading centre of the province of Britannia, constantly being rebuilt and extended. Around 240AD a particularly large Mithraeum was erected on the banks of the Walbrook in the heart of what is today the City of London. Due to intensive German bombing a third of buildings in the square mile were destroyed between 1940-45. The remains of the ancient temple were thus unexpectedly exposed and subsequently excavated in the immediate post war period, at the same time as its smaller contemporary counterpart in rural Northumberland was being unearthed. The metropolitan discovery evoked huge public interest amongst war weary Britons and thousands queued to view the remains. Further rich discoveries of artefacts from four hundred years of Roman occupation in the city were made, including a marble frieze (pictured above) and head of Mithras, which proved conclusive evidence for the existence of the temple on that site. (Both now on display in the nearby Museum of London and there are facsimiles in the Bloomberg Mithraeum waiting room).

The Walbrook stream was an open inlet then, a tributary of the Thames, and not culverted, as it is has been since the Georgian era. The Bloomberg development has made possible an interesting water sculpture, commissioned to reflect the hidden London river beneath. I can testify it’s a pleasant spot to sit and ruminate amid the passing noise and bustle of the country’s financial hub

When Bloomberg cleared the immediate post war buildings to set up its  European HQ here a decade ago the US data giant went to great lengths to honour its history. The 3.2 acre site, designed by Lord Norman Foster to sustainably house their 4,000 London based employees, was split in two with a central arcade restoring public access on the line of the old Roman highway of Watling Street, which had originally linked Londinium to Hadrian’s Wall. The fragile remains of the recovered temple were painstakingly reassembled on a site very close to its original location, and at the same depth – some 23 feet – below current ground level.

Access is free, although booking is advisable as numbers are strictly limited. There is a selection of recovered Roman artefacts displayed in the ground floor art gallery, which also has changing exhibitions by international artists inspired by the archaeological remains. https://www.londonmithraeum.com/

Loved my morning here a few weeks ago, on my last trip to London visiting family. Bloomberg’s wealth and cultural reverence has brought this significant building back to life through dramatic use of sight and sound; cleverly evoking one’s imagination and creative abilities to carry the story on, when known facts have registered but can take you no further. And that is quite an achievement. I won’t be able to revisit the Brocolitia site without recalling the Bloomberg Mithraeum experience and I’m grateful for it. The God of both places – with a bit of help from mere mortals – transfers spirit, each to each.